Searching for the bowling signs

I knew they existed.  I just didn’t know where to find them in this day and age.  But find them I did.  And I’m glad for it.


I’ve blogged in the past about how everybody in my family excelled in bowling.  Everybody, that is, except me.  But one thing I was fascinated with in bowling was the advertising and signage of bowling centers.  With that in mind, I always wanted to photograph an animated bowling neon sign – the kind that shows a neon bowling ball rolling down a lane to crash into animated neon bowling pins.

But where to find such signage?  This is 2015, and those signs – while beautiful and elegant and mesmerizing – are nearly impossible to find.  Usually by today, those retro signs fell out of favor and were often replaced with simple backlit signs in an effort to “modernize” things.  Or those old signs were just left to deteriorate and rot, and eventually the signs were never turned on again, leaving anyone to wonder if those signs ever worked at all.  A couple of wrench turns later, and the signs have vanished.  And the building housing the lanes becomes an office, or a storage facility, or a cable television newsroom.

Surely there must be one of those vintage signs in existence somewhere nearby.  Somewhere within a reasonable driving distance.

A Google search turned up one animated neon sign.  Another search revealed a vintage sign with some nice colors and a bit of Googie architecture.

Driving distance?  Six hours.  They were both in Pennsylvania.

Yeah.  Six hours?  I can handle that.  Road trip.  Nikon Df and a few lenses, tripod, directions… I got this.

First location – Lincolnway Bowling Center in York, Pennsylvania.  I checked my watch.  I might have just enough time to get there before sunset.  That would be awesome – a twilight shot of the sign as it starts its neon glow.  And maybe I’ll stick around and bowl a string and eat a cheeseburger and pick up a T-shirt as a souvenir.

Drive, drive, drive…

And at around 6:00 p.m., just as the sun was about to disappear behind the horizon… I arrived in South Central Pennsylvania.

The parking lot at Lincolnway Bowling Center was deserted.  Wow.  Nobody’s here – on a Saturday night?  That’s not normal..

Oh wait.  Taped sign on the door.  Lincolnway Bowling Center is closed.  Urgh.

No neon for Chuck.  Nertz.  Crumbs.  Booger-snot.  What the hell happened here, did somebody not pay the Amish Aid to Lebanon Levi and he shut down the place and I missed that happening on Amish Mafia?

Oh well… I still have the sign, and even if I can’t get the neon, at least nobody will bother me when I take these pictures.

A few regular shots…

Bowling 28 Lanes, Air Conditioned.  Nikon Df camera, Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 lens.  Photo by Chuck Miller.
Bowling 28 Lanes, Air Conditioned. Nikon Df camera, Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 lens. Photo by Chuck Miller.

Not bad.  The sign has some nice color to it – a little wear and rust, but not too shabby.

I then added a couple of HDR shots to the collection.

28 Lanes 1
Bowling 28 Lanes, Air Conditioned. Nikon Df camera, Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 lens, seven images combined in HDR capture. Photo by Chuck Miller.
28 Lanes 2
Bowling 28 Lanes, Air Conditioned 2. Nikon Df camera, Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 lens, seven images combined in HDR capture. Photo by Chuck Miller.


Yeah, I understand that sometimes HDR photos, when done the wrong way, can look like clown vomit.  I can tweak these HDR shots another time, though…

Okay.  Photos captured.  Now for the next location – North Philadelphia, and a place called North Bowl Lounge ‘n Lanes.

And as I drove into the night, heading for the City of Brotherly Love, I thought to myself about why I would drive so far to capture a photo of a sign, an image of a sunrise, a snapshot of a star.

And maybe it’s because when I go through emotional downturns in my life, those moments when I feel like the loneliest person in a crowd, that I need to change up my attitude.  Get in the car.  Take the cameras.  Go photograph something.  Anything.  Bring back a photo that will say, if nothing else, “In my one run upon this earth, in my one stretch from day to night, I will capture this.  Yes I will.”

And then I arrive in a construction yard that doubles as Philadelphia.  Where is this bowling alley… lots of one-way streets in Philadelphia, lots of construction, lots of – turn right – turn left – turn left – turn right – and there it is.  North Bowl Lounge ‘n Lanes in North Philadelphia.

And the neon sign is working.  Wow.

For those of you who haven’t visited North Philadelphia, it seems to be packed with college bars and college entertainment.  And North Bowl Lounge ‘n Lanes – which was once a mechanic’s garage and has been retrofitted into a bowling center and party lounge – seems to have acquired all the waycool retro fun of a bar with a bowling alley attached to it.  Okay, Chuck, stop ogling the signage.  Get the picture taken.

Nikon Df on the tripod.  Camera chip has plenty of space.  Battery has plenty of juice.  Chuck has plenty of ambition.

And bam.  I got this.

North Philly Bowl 3. Nikon Df camera, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G lens. Photo by Chuck Miller.

Look at that neon sign move.

Tell me that’s not the coolest thing out there.  I could have so much fun with this.  This is what I’ve been looking for.  And as far as I’ve been able to find, this may be the only animated outdoor bowling neon sign in the Northeast.  Heck, if anybody knows of another one, by all means drop me a line.

Gotta take this photo at another angle.

Oh great.  Here’s a couple of people stepping outside the bowling alley for a smoke and a little canoodling.  Come on, people, if your face gets in my picture, then I can’t enter this picture in competition… slowly… okay… just wait until they go back to paying attention to each other… and…

In the alley outside the bowling alley; North Philly Bowl 6. Nikon Df camera, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 lens, six images combined in cinemagraph. Photo by Chuck Miller.

Okay, so this shot isn’t Nighthawks, but come on… it was either work with whatever was available, or ask them to pose and then try to get model releases signed for both of them.

One more, straight on – oh wait, bouncer’s noticed me and he wants to know what I’m doing.  This isn’t good.  Dude looks like he lifts weights, builds cars, and has no sense of humor.  If I make him laugh, he’ll break me in half.  If I tell him a joke, my legs could get broke…

I quickly and politely explain what brought me to North Philadelphia.  “I’m trying to get this animated neon sign, and – ”

“That sign up there?” he pointed.


He looked at me.  “We’re going to put a second one up at our other bowling alley soon.”

Whew.  “Where’s that bowling alley?” I asked, making small talk.

“South Philly.  It’s called South Bowl.  When you get done with what you’re doing, you’re welcome to come in and have a drink.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I just nailed a 7-10 split.  Okay, back to the camera.

Everything’s aligned, straight on… let’s get this one.

North PHilly Bowl 9. Nikon Df camera, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G lens. Photo by Chuck Miller.

Nice.  Now if I ever do this again, I’m going to hire a couple of people to stand outside the front door – I don’t know if I’ll have them wearing retro bowling shirts or if it can just be one of those “cute people in love” scenes.  Don’t know yet.  But it’s definitely something to think about.  Heck, if I coordinate with the people at North Bowl Lounge ‘n Lanes, I’m sure they could help me get a couple of willing participants for a photo shoot.

Plus… it’s nice to see that I can still capture these bowling advertising signs before someone pulls them off the building.

And maybe I may never be able to shoot a 300 in my lifetime…

But I’m thinking I can at least shoot a photo that can get 300 people to like it.